Making sense of the election controversy

Donald Macintyre and Colin Brown answer questions on impasse over polls and all-party talks
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The Independent Online
British and Irish officials meet in London tomorrow to start bridging the gap between the two governments on how to take the peace process forward, including the British proposal that elections should be held before talks can start.

What would the elections be for?

A forum to select those who would take part in all-party talks on a long- term political settlement for Northern Ireland. That means all the parties, including Sinn Fein, if and only if the IRA ceasefire is restored.

Whose idea were they?

The Ulster Unionists' leader, David Trimble, has been pressing the idea for some time - partly as a way round the fact that Sinn Fein/IRA have always refused the original British Government-Unionist demand that all- party talks could not proceed until the Republicans had begun decommissioning their arms.

In effect, Mr Trimble was saying: "If there are elections we won't insist on decommissioning ahead of the talks." Nationalist critics fear they could produce another Stormont - the heavily unionist-dominated parliament which ran Northern Ireland for so many years. But elections would give the parties a mandate to enter talks and it would act as an earnest of Sinn Fein's commitment to democratic politics.

How would the forum be elected?

No decision has been taken but a British government paper, to be discussed between London and Dublin officials today, suggests Single Transferable Voting (a form of proportional representation) which would elect five winning candidates from each of the 18 Parliamentary constituencies - 90 in all.

Privately, the SDLP has been suggesting that if it did ever agree to elections, it would be much better if the 90 were elected from party lists in a single constituency covering the whole of Northern Ireland.

That's a pretty unwieldy way of running all-party talks, isn't it?

It wouldn't be the body which actually carried out the talks. The individual parties would select a much smaller group from among those elected to actually carry out the talks - which would presumably include all the party leaders.

But the party representatives would have to be from those elected. They couldn't co-opt non-elected members instead. The 90-strong body probably wouldn't meet much; it might convene occasionally to hear reports of how all-party talks were going.

Supposing some of the key players don't have any of their representatives elected?

Well, it is unlikely that Sinn Fein, which gets about 10 per cent of the popular vote in Northern Ireland and has members of a number of local councils, wouldn't get on the body. But if it did happen, some form of representation would still be arranged. An unresolved question is the two small political wings of the loyalist paramilitaries. If they didn't get elected they could still get a place at the talks.

What are the chances of Sinn Fein, Dublin, and the SDLP accepting the election idea?

On the face of it, the chances of Sinn Fein and the SDLP doing so aren't that good. John Hume again expressed his strong opposition yesterday. Sinn Fein, publicly, have been implacably opposed.

Last weekend John Bruton said that for the British Government to pursue the idea would be a "serious mistake".

However, since John Major's statement in the Commons, Dublin at least has shifted its approach. John Bruton told the Dail yesterday that the Irish Government was prepared to discuss the elections.

So why has Mr Bruton changed his line?

John Major went out of his way yesterday to emphasise that the elected body would not have administrative and legislative powers, would be "strictly time limited", would lead speedily to negotiations - and would in no way be a second Stormont.

Moreover, by saying that he was also prepared to consider other options he has excited some hope in Dublin of talks before the elections, in which the parties gather in separate rooms with a mediator at hand. This is the so-called "Dayton, Ohio" formula (after the Bosnia peace talks) and it could help Dublin to crack one of the most difficult problems: persuading the SDLP, let alone Sinn Fein, that elections are a runner.